ATHLETES AND NON-ATHLETES ALIKE HAVE COME OUT IN SUPPORT OF NAOMI OSAKA

The Japanese tennis player, Naomi Osaka, has been fuelling debate and controversy in the world of sports following her decision to withdraw from interviews and take a break to focus on her mental health. This raises an inevitable question: do sports players owe the media anything, especially when their mental well-being is at stake?


Osaka

Osaka, a 23-year-old 4-time Grand Slam winner, famously pulled out of the French Open tournament. This was after being threatened with expulsion by the organizers.  The tennis star refused to appear in the winner’s press conference after a first-round win against Romania’s Patricia Rig. In a candid Twitter statement, Osaka had this to say:

‘The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018, and I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows that I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I am often wearing headphones as this helps dull my social anxiety …’

Support for Naomi

Many other athletes, and not just from the world of tennis, have stepped in to support Osaka after she revealed that she had been battling depression since winning the US Open in 2018. Amongst her supporters is Formula One star, Sir Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton was 22 and in his first season as a top-flight Formula One driver when the pressure struck him. He recalls how he was, ‘young’ and ‘thrown into the pit’ without any guidance or support. Hamilton has also criticized the organizers at Roland-Garros for the way they handled — or rather mishandled — the situation, saying that:

‘… the way they reacted was not good with the fine. Someone talking about their personal mental health and then being fined for it, definitely wasn’t cool’.

Non-sports stars have also spoken out in support of Osaka in recent days. Will Smith, who is best known for appearing in sitcoms such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air wrote:

‘Hey Naomi, You are right. They are wrong! I am with you.’

Other high-profilers supporting Osaka include former First Lady Hilary Clinton, Pink, and Viola Davis.

Athletes who have been brave enough to speak out about their struggles with mental health include American gymnast Aly Raisman, American swimmer Michael Phelps, English Cricketer Freddie Flintoff, UFC fighter Ronda Rousey and American football player Abby Wambach.

The media must take a step back

Osaka was fined $15,000 for backing out of press conferences and threatened with expulsion from the tournament. She is one of countless athletes to be mistreated by sports organizations and harassed by the media. So is it time for an overhaul in sports?

This overhaul might mean that only the winners do a press conference after the final match. It’s no secret that the media tend to ask the same questions again and again — something that many athletes find both frustrating and tedious. There have been times when athletes have shown their frustration with the media. One instance is of Serena Williams being asked about the slamming of her racket at the Australian open — something that prompted fans to protest against the perceived racism and double standards.

But just because the media expects players to provide answers, it doesn’t make it an obligation. A middle ground must be sought. One where the media respects players’ boundaries and their mental health concerns and in return, players that feel unfit to do press conferences are given the opportunity to issue statements  — minus the $15,000 fine.